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WILDLIFE : Navy Considers Last Days of the Dolphins : Pentagon wants to send 30 military mammals to parks. But activists make waves.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Work your tail off every day, risk life and limb to protect your country and what thanks do you get? Early retirement and a one-way trip to Sea World.

It’s no secret that the Pentagon drawdown has been tough on U.S. troops in every armed service. But now the cutbacks have gone beyond troops--to the Navy dolphins. The elite squad of 100 flippered fighters--reserved for the most daring underwater search and demolition missions--has served as watchdogs for anchored ships and as minesweepers in conflicts from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf.

But in today’s streamlined military, there is less room for the unit, which is cared for by civilian marine scientists. The Pentagon says 30 of the dolphins have got to go.

Pentagon officials say the animals, valued for their sonar and tracking abilities, cannot simply be set free. Two years ago, Congress asked the Navy to study the possibility of releasing the animals into the open sea. Researchers determined that freeing the tamed dolphins, which are regularly fed and treated for medical problems, could expose them to diseases and leave them without the survival skills that free dolphins develop while growing up, the Navy said.

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Earlier this year, Congress granted the Navy permission to transfer some of the dolphins to marine parks around the country. About 70 dolphins will stay on the job in San Diego, and about 25 will become part of displays at amusement centers, aquariums or parks.

To find new homes for the animals, the Navy has to sort through hundreds of requests for the dolphins from marine parks, research centers and even back-yard pool owners looking for new pets. Then the dolphin experts have to interview potential caretakers, investigate facilities and finally seek approval from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The Navy plans to ship its first group of five dolphins, all males captured in 1989 off Gulfport, Miss., to a dolphin research center in Sugarloaf Key, Fla., later this summer.

Complicating the issue, the government says, are animal rights advocates who demand release of the dolphins from any type of captivity. Some have questioned the Navy’s devotion to the dolphins and accused civilian caretakers of mistreating the animals.

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But the discussion of how to handle the dolphins’ future has turned into a bitter feud. Military officials denounce the animal rights advocates for basing their argument solely on emotion and failing to look at the research on reintroduction. The Navy says it cares for the animals responsibly and exercises them daily.

“The people they are complaining about are human beings who work with the animals six to eight hours a day every day of the week,” said Tom LaPuzza, a spokesman for the Naval Command Control and Ocean Surveillance Center in San Diego. “This really comes down to the difference between responsible management or administering an emotional placebo.”

In addition to keeping the 70 dolphins, the Navy plans to hold on to a handful of older dolphins who are not on active duty. Officials call the group, which includes a 36-year-old named Maui who served in the Vietnam War, the “retirement community.”

But activists--including Ric O’Barry, who trained the 1960s television star Flipper before helping the Navy catch its first dolphins--hope to eliminate the military program and release all the animals.

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“When the American taxpayers learn that the dolphins can be set free cost-effectively, they’re not going to want to keep paying for it,” said O’Barry, who freed a 10-year-old dolphin named Flipper off the coast of Brazil last year after the animal had spent six years in an amusement park.

Researchers can identify Flipper by the Brazilian flag marking on his dorsal fin, and say he now catches his own fish and travels with a group. O’Barry says he has readapted 11 other dolphins.

Animal rights proponents at the Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary say they plan to apply for a permit to free the animals as soon as next year. But the Navy may try to hinder their release.

Until researchers determine that tame dolphins can survive on their own, “we cannot release the animals into the wild in good conscience, and we won’t,” one Navy official said. “When you have an attachment to the animals, there’s a resistance to just opening the pen and saying: ‘OK. Have fun. It’s been real. See ya.’ ”

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Said Lloyd Good, who directs the Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary: “The fact of the matter is, they have 30 dolphins too many. The best place for dolphins is their natural environment, and I don’t think anyone will disagree with that.”


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